From Bach's St Matthew Passion to Haydn's Creation and Mendelssohn's Elijah, the musical genre of the oratorio has brought out some of the most beautiful and dramatic music from history's greatest composers. Without the acting, props, and elaborate costumes of the opera, oratorio must make its impact largely through the emotive qualities of the music alone. Combined with the drama and passion inherent to the sacred texts on which they are based, the oratorio taps into some of our most fundamental human emotions.
The oratorio rose to prominence in 17th century Italy where the Church had prohibited operatic spectacles during Lent. In its beginnings, there was a really strong emphasis on narrative and the dialogue between characters. The music often relied on contrapuntal styles and madrigal-like techniques. During the latter half of the century, the genre widened to include a broad range of both religious and secular themes, including Creation, the life of Jesus, the tales of heros or biblical prophets and others. Stories of full of eventful drama were the most popular, such as the life of Elijah or the tale of Samson and Delilah.
While Scarlatti defined the oratorio in Italy, alongside Bach and Telemann in Germany, English oratorio found its champion in Handel, whose Messiah has become one of the definitive works of classical music history. In the 20th century, the oratorio continued to find its voice through Stravinsky, Honegger, and even Paul McCartney.
Enjoy our selection of classic oratorio, or discover more about the genre with our full explanatory article.